DURHAM, North Carolina—On May 20, two prison guards pushed a wheelchair carrying 79-year-old Alan Hurwitz into the airport here. Convicted of bank robberies a decade before, Hurwitz had been freed from a nearby federal prison by a judge who found him no threat to society—and at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
A week and a half later, Juan Ramon, 60, also boarded a plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, this time bound for Miami. He had been serving a two-year sentence for identity theft and had many health problems, which prompted his release by another federal judge.
Though officials at the Butner federal prison had opposed their release for weeks, the men were finally on their way home.
But they did not escape the virus. The prison did not test either man for COVID-19—and they carried it with them onto the planes. Within days, one was dead.
Their stories highlight systemic problems in the Bureau of Prison’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic. About 7,000 prisoners in the care of the U.S. government have contracted COVID-19; 94 have died. More than 700 infected correctional officers have carried the virus back and forth between their communities and their workplaces.
Nowhere in the federal system has the outbreak been as deadly as at the giant Butner complex about 15 miles northeast of Durham. Twenty-five prisoners there perished from COVID-19, the most of any federal lockup. Butner is also the only BOP prison to have a confirmed staff death.
Butner is emblematic in other ways. Prison officials were slow to test for the disease, enabling infected men to spread the virus to their neighbors in cramped dorms where social distancing is impossible. In sworn affidavits, prisoners reported they went untested for six weeks or more even as their dorm mates fell ill, were taken to hospital and died. Officials moved infected men among the complex’s five units.
Correctional officers and prisoner workers shuttling between units became coronavirus vectors inside the prison—and outside its walls as well. Across the country, guards have been linked to outbreaks in their communities; releasing incarcerated people without testing them also exposed people on the outside.
Despite an order from the U.S. Attorney General to send medically vulnerable prisoners home, Butner officials were slow to release them. Butner has a hospital and four prisons filled with thousands of chronically sick men. Yet over two months, officials released fewer than 50 out of 4,700 incarcerated people to home confinement. That’s less than 1 percent, while the average for BOP prisons is 2.5 percent, according to court records and agency statistics.
Prison officials have not been able to establish physical distancing, the number one tool against the coronavirus, said Dr. Jody Rich, an infectious disease specialist at Brown University.
“We shut down the whole economy to physically distance people, but you can’t do it in this confined setting, so you have to reduce the census,” Rich said. “The number one thing you do on a cruise ship is to get everybody off the cruise ship.”
Butner officials have said little publicly about how they are handling the outbreak. McClatchy and The Marshall Project learned details of testing, housing patterns, prisoner movements and a staff death through leaks from workers, interviews with prisoners’ family members and reports from the men inside.
"Just watching what they were doing around there, it was pretty clear it was going to be a disaster," said Dan Johnson, a former South Carolina prosecutor recently released from Butner after serving a year for misusing a government credit card.
“If a local jail did the things they do at Butner,” he added, “federal officials would come and lock people up."
Butner officials did not respond to requests for comment. A Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, Sue Allison, defended the response to the pandemic, noting that thousands of men were chronically ill and vulnerable to COVID-19 because of Butner’s status as a medical center.
Tests were in short supply early on and reserved for prisoners with symptoms, she told us.
“There was never a time we did not have enough tests to test inmates who needed to be tested,” she wrote.
Butner Federal Correctional Complex is a sprawling compound of five prisons in North Carolina tobacco country built on a former Army base. It has one of six federal medical centers for the chronically ill, treating men with cancer, kidney disease and respiratory issues. Many of the men in the other four units—two medium security prisons, a low security unit with open dormitories and a minimum security camp—are assigned to Butner to receive outpatient care at the medical center. The complex has a capacity of 4,100 men; it housed 4,700 at the start of the pandemic.
On March 26, as coronavirus spread across the country, Butner reported its first case, a staffer infected with COVID-19.
The same day, Attorney General William Barr wrote the memo urging the Bureau of Prisons to identify prisoners who could serve the rest of their sentences at home: medically at-risk people in low or minimum security lockups with records of good conduct behind bars.
Ramon fit the criteria. His identity-theft crime was non-violent, he had no disciplinary record and he was housed in the low security unit at Butner.
And he was medically vulnerable. Court records show that in 2018, as he awaited sentencing, he suffered a massive heart attack. He had a pacemaker installed and retained only a third of his heart function.
On April 1, Ramon’s son, J.C., filed a request with the warden for his father, who had no history of violence. “I want to assure you this is not an attempt to avoid serving his sentence,” J.C. Ramon wrote. “It is a plea to allow a very ill man to be near his family for the remainder of his life.”
The next day, a lawyer filed a similar request for Hurwitz, who had suffered six heart attacks and four separate bouts with cancer. He was so frail he was assigned an “inmate companion” to help him with hygiene, laundry and getting around in his wheelchair.
A lifelong teacher, civil rights activist and former Peace Corps administrator, Hurwitz taught adult education classes in prison on the history of civil rights in America. He helped dozens of men research and write their court filings.
His poor health and clean disciplinary record made him a strong candidate for home confinement, but his criminal record was an obstacle. Hurwitz had been convicted of two strings of bank robberies, one in the early 1990s and another in 2009, which earned him the nickname “Zombie Bandit” because of his blank expression. Bank robbery is a violent crime; Hurwitz argued that he posed no danger to the community.
His family says mental illness and a late-in-life addiction to crack cocaine explained his contradictory soul. They say he used toy guns or a taped-up hand drill to rob banks—institutions that he detested—but never a convenience or liquor store.
“He saw people working their asses off and corporate greed was winning,” said a daughter, Laura Hurwitz. “His depression got the better of him and he began to recklessly stab at the system, a terrible choice.”
Federal prosecutors saw him differently, describing Hurwitz at sentencing as a career criminal who made bank tellers fear for their lives.
On April 3, the day after Hurwitz applied for release, Barr issued a second order that boosted the men’s chances for freedom. “IMMEDIATELY MAXIMIZE” the transfer of people from prisons with COVID-19 outbreaks to home confinement, he wrote.
But the outbreak was already surging through Butner. The first prisoner died April 9. The next day officials reported 58 coronavirus cases among the incarcerated and 22 among staff. The cases began at a medium security unit and then moved to the minimum security camp.
Prison officials reopened a decommissioned building formerly used for disciplinary confinement, aka The Hole. Butner officials used its two-man cells to quarantine newly arrived prisoners and to house men who tested positive for COVID-19.
Sick prisoners doubled up in tiny cells, received reduced rations and were subjected to extreme heat and cold, according to interviews with 14 prisoners and some of their family members, as well as sworn affidavits. Some infected men tried to hide their symptoms to avoid the place, which increased the risks for other people, including correctional officers.
Allison, the BOP spokeswoman, said allegations of poor conditions were untrue.
Butner compounded the problem with what a federal judge labeled a “so-called quarantine policy.” Men granted home confinement first had to wait 14 days in group quarantine, all the while in close contact with others in lines for food and medicine and in bathrooms and showers. If one man became infected, all had to start their 14 day quarantine again from day zero. On April 20, U.S. District Court Judge Alison Nathan called this “Kafkaesque”.
“As the virus spreads in the unit, the 14-day clock will repeatedly restart, perpetually prolonging incarceration,” she wrote.
A constant complaint from prisoners was that officials moved men back and forth between the quarantine area and the four dorms of the low-security units, now home to 70 percent of the cases.
The very architecture of the place makes social distancing impossible: The open dorms are divided into 8-foot-by-12-foot cubicles made of cinder block half walls, each sleeping two or three men. The bathrooms and showers are crowded and communal.
Guy Thompson described prisoners as old as 90 crammed into the cubicles; at age 66, he has heart disease, a pacemaker, hypertension and kidney problems.
“In my unit, there are 15 men in wheelchairs, 19 men on walkers, and 14 men on breathing or oxygen machines,” he wrote.
Butner officials compounded the lack of social distancing by shuffling prisoners between the dorms and The Hole. It was impossible to separate the infected from the uninfected because the prison didn’t do much testing.
Butner’s first attempt at widespread testing occurred at the end of April at the minimum security camp, which held 248 men. Allison, the Bureau’s spokeswoman, said 216 tested positive, 87 percent. Most showed no symptoms, she said.
A month after Ramon and Hurwitz asked to finish their sentences at home, Warden Tamara Lyn sent form letters denying their requests.
“The BOP is taking extraordinary measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and treat any infected inmates,” Lyn wrote Hurwitz on April 30. “Your concern about being potentially exposed to, or possibly contracting, COVID-19 does not currently warrant an early release from your sentence.”
The warden told the men they could appeal this decision.
Instead, both men took their cases to federal court.
J.C. Ramon wrote to the judge who had sentenced his father to prison in 2019 asking for mercy: “My father is a religious man who, throughout my life, has been known to everyone as a dependable source of strength for family and friends.”
A federal public defender filed a request for Hurwitz in Oregon, where he was sentenced in 2010.
In the low-security dorms, Hurwitz continued helping others draft and file their own requests for compassionate release. One of the dozens of people he helped was Travis McGhee, who was serving a drug possession charge.
Hurwitz “was doing it for nothing,” McGhee said in an interview. “He just wanted to see you get out.”
McGhee, 37, has an incurable lung disease called pulmonary sarcoidosis. As with Ramon and Hurwitz, the warden had denied McGhee home confinement in April.
“They don’t look at your medical history or nothing,” McGhee said of Butner officials. “They just deny you because they want to deny you.”
A judge agreed to McGhee’s release. In the days before his departure, McGhee said he noticed that Hurwitz looked pale and lethargic, and was coughing up mucus.
“He kept telling us that he was OK, but I seen the look on his face, that he wasn’t OK,” McGhee said.
As McGhee was being released, a team of civil rights lawyers said Butner was in crisis and asked a federal judge to intervene. The lawyers asked for the immediate review of all medically vulnerable men, more prisoners to be sent to home confinement, increased testing and more social distancing. U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan acknowledged that the men incarcerated at Butner faced irreparable harm if they got COVID-19, but declined to intervene because she found the Bureau of Prisons had taken reasonable steps to prevent sickness.
At the beginning of June, officials tested all the prisoners at the low-security unit. The number of positive cases shot up as test results arrived, quickly hitting 642—about 60 percent of the men held there.
Though Butner’s warden had released only 42 prisoners by this time, judges freed 57. One of them was Ramon, after the prosecutor who handled his criminal case didn’t oppose his request. Ramon, who was not tested before boarding the plane, was running a fever when he arrived home in Miami on June 1, his son said. A test for COVID-19 came back positive.
Ramon tried to tough it out at home but became increasingly short of breath. He was admitted to the hospital the following Monday. Two days later, hooked up to oxygen yet still gasping for breath, Ramon told his son where he kept his burial insurance and will.
“He thought he was dying,” J.C. Ramon said.
The elder Ramon began to improve, and after two weeks in the hospital went home. His son says the hospitalization could have been avoided if the warden had granted his initial request and sent him home in April. The Bureau of Prisons said it did not include Ramon in its case count because he was tested elsewhere.
Hurwitz made it out of prison but never made it home.
The BOP bought Hurwitz a plane ticket for Medford, Oregon and dropped him at the Raleigh-Durham airport on May 20. When Hurwitz’s plane landed in Denver, his daughter said, he had chest pains and a 104 degree temperature. Airline officials put him in an ambulance rather than on the third leg of the flight.
Laura Hurwitz said her father was not tested for coronavirus at Butner. She worries about the health risks for the attendants who wheeled him around the airports.
“Moving someone from a wheelchair into an airplane seat is very intimate and close,” she said.
An American Airlines spokeswoman said the airline was not told a passenger had the virus. A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said that agency policy is to use transportation that will minimize exposure, with an emphasis on transportation by family and friends. At the time Hurwitz and Ramon were released, the agency did not require that all prisoners be tested before release. It changed that policy June 19.
At the hospital in Denver, nurses arranged video chats between Hurwitz and his children and grandchildren. For five days they shared memories, told stories and sang until doctors induced a coma to put Hurwitz on a ventilator.
The nurses continued the video chats and the family sang the songs that their comatose father had taught them: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Joe Hill,” anything by Pete Seeger. Laura Hurwitz said they sang their last song “If I Had a Hammer,” on June 6.
“The nurse was holding his hand,” she said. “He passed and looked peaceful.”
The Bureau of Prisons does not count Hurwitz as one of Butner’s dead.